Monthly Archives: June 2022

  • Vagabond (Ni Toit ni Loi)   Agnes Varda

    Vagabond (Ni Toit ni Loi)   Agnes Varda (1985; Fr) Sandrine Bonnaire

    viewed Star and Shadow Cinema Newcastle 12 June 22; ticket: £7

    La France profonde

    As at the end so it is at the beginning. Agnes Varda’s script for Vagabond starts with the death of ‘Mona’ her vagrant drifter, frozen to death in a ditch. The movie then re-calls fragments of her life and the episodes immediately leading up to her demise, the demise of a woman. As the picture of her life is assembled, the various characters she’s met comment straight to camera both on Mona and their impression of her, creating an effect that has both a reflective and judgemental quality.

    Thinking about Varda’s choice of nomenclature for ‘Mona’. The name was surely chosen to stand in ironic counterpoise to the most famous ‘Mona’ of all, Mona Lisa.

    This portrait is Da Vinci’s depiction of an eternalised perfect woman, who in her smile concentrates an essence of femininity. Varda’s ‘Mona’ is otherwise: her behaviour is in complete contrast to any traditional ideas of female behaviour and demeanour, she is smelly and dirty, her facial expression often characterised by an aggressive or dismissive scowl. She does not court either the approval or the adoration of the male.

    As in ‘Happiness’, in which the sound track is the ‘critical’ part of the scenario, used to deconstruct/re-conceptualise Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in C, so in Vagabond, the name ‘Mona’ is used to oppose the symbolic female nature of Leonardo’s portrait. Varda having fun employing film to combat both film industry use of art as a sanitising device and Bourgeois appropriation of cultural interpretations and related imputed significations. The ‘Monas’ of the type portrayed in Vagabond, women hardened bull whipped and fucked by life are equally due representation as the standard idealisations.  

    One question is why did Varda chose to end Mona’s career in death? Vagabond might have well have ended on a final shot of Mona hitching a ride, getting into a car and disappearing down the road becoming a dot on the horizon. But the idea of a finality is built into the script. Varda uses Mona’s boots as signage, as, through the final third of the film, they gradually fall apart exposing her to physical jeopardy. Varda in her scenario determined that her protagonist had to die. Her death as with her life indicating an existential freedom to live as herself on her own terms, as the new ‘Mona’.   For the new ‘Mona’ to take on responsibility for a transitory life means accepting violence rape death. The pact is total. It is a core trait of Varda’s thinking that if women want to move to free themselves from male dominance, it’s not easy work. It has to be work that takes on both life and death, work that Varda also probes in ‘Cléo 5-7’.

    Mona is a construct of pure immanence. One of Varda’s themes seems to be that for people to develop, or rather to rebuild a ruptured or false self, they don’t need a new image, they need to live immanently, to occupy their lives in the present. Existence precedes essence. Homeless people, wanderers have to do this. They live without a home, without the law (ni toit ni loi) reliant on and needing to develop their own inner knowledge and resources rather than to be an object or the creation of social forces. Vagabond is a film of such an existence; a film of the movement towards essence, as Mona rejects the life of a female functionary in an office, and strips out all the outer vestiges of her previous way of life to take to the road.

    Vagabond is sits in the saddle of rural France. Varda’s scenario is designed as a series of episodic sometimes linked vignettes comprising the different types of relationships that Mona enters into as she moves through and about the countryside. We see how people interact and then comment upon Mona. Everyone sees that Mona, as a lone woman vagabond is usual, and that challenges them in one way or another: they expose their different attitudes towards her: some judgemental, some sympathetic, some manipulative, some evincing a simple acceptance of her as a being. And the relationships she has with men she enters into as an equal: on her own terms in her own time for her own ends.

    But throughout the myriad of incidents and events, some trivial some engaging, what stands out is the manner in which Varda has filmed the rural world’s response to and engagement with Mona. Varda worked with a mix of non-actors and professionals but there is more going on in the making of the film than Varda just working and filming with ordinary people. There is something in the manner of her ability as director to work with situations and people as they are, enfolding them into a scenario without compromising the key elements of their natural responses. The result is that ‘Vagabond’ has an authentic resonance unusual in film, as Varda opens up wide the lens of her camera to allow us a glimpse of this hidden rural environment: its industrialisation of production, its newcomers, its diseased underbelly, its people materially changing but yet still often locked into inheritance of their forbears and the new youth culture spawned about the small country towns and revolving about drug use.

    In this ability to bring her films to ‘life’ she shares some of the same talents as Kairostami who often worked in a similar way and who must have enjoyed ‘Vagabond’. Kairostami’s work, like Varda’s also often employed in his dramas an admixed documentary style.

    There are certainly those who find ‘Vagabond’ a depressing viewing experience. I don’t share this feeling, as I feel that Varda through her creating of Mona, ultimately honours the spirit. And ‘spirit’ does not die.

    adrin neatrour

  • Vampyr   Carl Theodore Dreyer

    Vampyr   Carl Theodore Dreyer (1932; Fr/Ger) Nicolas de Gunzburg

    viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd June 22; ticket £10.75

    film robotix

    Seeing Dreyer’s main character Alan Gray walking thorough ‘Vampyr’, treading the the line between the real and the imagined, he called to mind Bunuel’s protagonist in L’Age d’Or. Both men were middle aged ordinary men of the cinema and sported the same ‘30’s era look: costumed in suit tie sensible shoes and carefully parted hair, though Bunuel’s ‘hero’ is in evening dress with bow tie, and he ends up rather dishevelled. As ‘Vampyr’ develops after Gray’s arrival at the ‘Inn’ it feels in some respects as if Dreyer’ film is a continuation of L’Age d’Or.   Both protagonists work their way through the respective scenarios as if they were automatons, like mechanically driven dummies that are presented with increasingly strange and outrageous situations which demand an imperturbable but mechanistic robotic capability to get through to the end. Like bulldozers they either shunt aside or plough over all that crosses their paths. Like clowns and other types robots, dummies, mummies et al, they are all strong filmic devices for breaking through the walls of the convention, a feature also useful in horror movies.

    Both Bunuel and Dreyer commit to using the full resources of the cinema to express thought as cinematic imagery. Both film makers make extensive use of non linear impossible cuts, but whereas Bunuel uses fragmentation to break up the structure of his film Dreyer uses cinematic techniques to create the feeling of another world of intention and desire existing right beside us if only we knew where and how to look.

    The thought modes underlying Bunuel and Dreyer are distinct. They point in different directions. Bunuel’s automaton points to what cannot be seen: ‘The man’ in L’Age d’Or’ is sent out to undermine the solid world of the Bourgeoisie to reveal its pretence hypocrisy and dishonesty, to lift the lid on forbidden desire that underlies the surface of ‘politesse’ and good manners. Dreyer’s character points to what can be seen but which is hiding in plain view, if only you know how to look, for instance with a certain squinting of the eyes. Alan does not probe underneath the surface of reality but sensitised to its existence, is able to see the parallel world, a shadow world that exists co-terminous with the things we can see. It is a flickering world just like the world of cinema.

    The line between the real and the imagined becomes blurred. And this is the stunning visual feature of ‘Vampyr’, Dreyer’s cinematic ability to create the images the signs that indicate that the Vampyr is at work in the world of the living. Dreyer mostly utilises the technical potential inherent in the operation of the camera: gauze, lens stocking, exaggerated shadow, matts, double exposures, over and under exposures. But he also exploits the faciality of his players. In one particular scene, a young woman is confined to her bed by a mystery illness (caused by the Vampyr) and we see cued by the arrival of the evil doctor, the young woman’s face transform itself.   As she draws back her mouth to reveal a set of bared threatening animal teeth, her face changes from an expression of resigned suffering to a mask of pure evil intent. Dreyer conjures up the world that is hovering at our shoulder but which we try not to see. And of course there is very good reason why we don’t want to acknowledge it. We prefer not to read the signs that are right in front of our noses; we want to look away from the shadow world, we want to continue to carry on as normal.

    Interspersed throughout the film’s duration is the text of the history of Vampyrs. It is returned to with increasing insistence.

    ‘Vampyr’ was made between 1930 -1 when Dreyer was moving all round Europe. As a European observer Dreyer will have been very aware of the revolutionary atmosphere in Germany, where Nazi’s and Communists were contesting the streets and had developed simple ideological formulae to attract votes. In 1930 elections the Nazi’s made their first significant electoral gains in Berlin with their anti-Semitic racist propaganda, their remilitarisation proposals and their trumpeting of German nationalism. As a filmmaker aligned to seeking out the salvatory and spiritual in life (The Passion of Jenne’d’Arc) it feels that Dreyer’s choice of the Vampyr motif must have been guided by his perception that at this time there was a diabolic force abroad in the world. But no one could see that this force was right in their midst, people weren’t reading the signs. Returned to again and again the words of the film’s text intensify. It explains how the Vampyr takes over control of people’s soul as people fall under its sway; the Vampyr is like a plague on the innocent; it seeks to colonise whole villages; to drive the whole population to suicide; it….it fills their veins with poison. Vampyr is not so much, one entity, it is a fog a mist that penetrates through our world, and like the air we breath we are blind to it.

    What reverberates for me after seeing ‘Vampry’ is not so much the specificity of Dreyer’s film, but the underlying idea of reading the signs, reading the runes, understanding what is happening in the shadow world right beside you.

    adrin neatrour

  • Top Gun Maverick Review

    Tales from the vault of unpopular views – ‘Not my Top Gun’

    I recognise this is a pro military, nationalist propaganda tool and I planned on ending my virtue signalling here as I did not want to get political about the film.  Unfortunately this will not be the case.

    It was 1986.  I had just turned 16 and there was this American fighter plane film at the cinema.  ‘Top Gun’  was a film that I can’t deny had a massive impact on me.  I had a super hard crush on Kelly McGillis and the soundtrack was tailor made for a white boy teenager.   I had the soundtrack which I wore to the nub on my chunky Walkman with fat buttons.  Berlin’s ‘Take my Breath Away’ still scratches a caveman part of my brain that had yearnings for Kelly McGinnis’s character, Charlie.  I even had the VHS tape.  By 1995 I was at Uni.  I had a new love, ecstasy and speed and ‘Top Gun’ was way back in the rear view mirror.  Today I can barely remember the characters and the plot.  The knowledge they were making a sequel interested me in no way at all.  Then all the reviews from all across the spectrum of reviewers started coming out and they dragged me back in.

    ‘Top Gun Maverick’ is not my ‘Top Gun’. It starts with the Paramount logo and the chime from the ‘Top Gun’ anthem before the uplifting electric guitar solo and I thought this is ‘Top Gun’.  There was this piece with this experimental stealth plane, with Tom Cruise as Maverick flying it and Ed Harris playing some sort of military brass and I thought, ‘interesting, some kind of homage to ‘The Right Stuff’.  We get a remix of Kenny Login’s ‘Danger Zone’ which was cool.  As I said my ‘Top Gun’ is ‘Take My Breath Away’ but this is not my ‘Top Gun’.   It then goes in to the film proper.  There is plenty of reviews and synopsis around for this film and I’m not really interested in doing that here.  I mostly want to analyse it and to give my totally biased, selfish reasons why this is not my ‘Top Gun’.

    The demographic of people who went to the cinema to view this film on the opening weekend were mostly around my age, maybe a decade younger.  It was all about the nostalgia.  Right from that first chime at the introduction with  the Paramount logo.  I have no problem with that.  I don’t think it did it bad.  Unfortunately I had forgotten most of the 1986 film and have no intention of going back to see it, which kind of blunted the nostalgia for me.  Also the most important elements for ‘ME’ from the original were missing from this film.  Kelly McGillis’s Charlie, or at least a character like her.  Kelly Mcgillis had  equal billing in the original ‘Top Gun’.  Charlie was a well-developed character, who stood toe to toe in the power dynamic with Maverick.  In this film Jennifer Connelly was fine as Penny Benjamin, bar owner, mother who sails and had, had a past relationship with Maverick.  Penny the love interest.  Not my ‘Top Gun’.  To be honest this is quite symbolic of the difference in most trajectories for careers depending on gender within the Hollywood machine.

    ‘Top Gun Maverick’ had all the tropes you would expect from a film like this, competitive characters, one’s an arrogant hot shot.  A higher up person who doesn’t like the protagonist and puts up obstacles to interfere with their goals.  The journey from failure to success, blah, blah, blah.  Which is fine.  They are tropes for a reason.  They work.  They press the right buttons in our reactionary brain.  This ain’t high art. I did however have a problem with the emotional beats.  Reviewers were saying how it brought them to tears.  Unfortunately I forgot most of what the 1986 ‘Top Gun’ was about and again, had no intention of re-watching it.  Rather than invest in developing these new characters, this film more relied on the nostalgia  of characters from the 1986 film which I mostly forgot and so when something feely happened it just didn’t impact me.  They even did the offspring of the  tragic character in the original trope, ‘Goose’ who I had mostly forgot.  Mainly because he wasn’t played by Kelly Mcgillis.   This is not my ‘Top Gun’

    The other thing is the soundtrack.  1986 ‘Top Gun’, my ‘Top Gun’ had some really strong music.  There was the ‘Top Gun’ theme, Kenny Logins ‘Danger Zone’ and ‘Playing with the Boys’ and of course the chart topping ‘Take My Breath Away’.  ‘Top Gun Maverick’ seemed to rely on the nostalgia of the theme, it threw in ‘Danger Zone’ and the stuff for this movie just wasn’t memorable.  I’m probably biased because it isn’t my ‘Top Gun’.

    The mission itself was a bit computer game like.  It was fine.  The ariel stunts were fine.  The last act was the most fun for me.  It fed the action hungry part of my brain and gave me some thrills.  I don’t think it’s a bad movie it’s just not my ‘Top Gun’

    I’m going to end with the villains.  The film carefully avoids stating any country, or group are the villains and avoids specific geographic locations.  The only differences between the heroes and the villains is, the machinery, the villains use is all black stuff and we are told it’s more advanced than the American machinery (Hand over mouth laughing.).  Even though the American machinery is not as advanced, the Americans have pluck and beat the villains through sheer skill.  The villains are faceless, just fodder to be killed and sploded.  The Americans have cool names and colourful equipment and we see their faces.  There is even a part with Maverick and Penny riding a motorbike without a helmet.  I was a bit fuming.  Brain injury is real, wear a helmet unless you’re Nathan Hunt and you have to make a quick getaway.  The villains did not attack these American heroes or America, or anywhere.  The Americans made a pre-emptive attack on the villains who used their black equipment to defend themselves.  What did the villains do wrong?  They were building a facility to store Uranium.  Something the American Heroes with inferior equipment would never do.  It seems just being American makes you the hero and justifies any offensive action. 

    Anyway on that note back to ‘Stranger Things’ season 4 which I’m enjoying a lot more because…  that was not my ‘Top Gun’

    Until next time this is Whakapai signing off.

  • Stalker

    Stalker   Adrei Tarkovsky   (USSR 1979) Alexander Kaidanovski Alisa Freindlich

    Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema 26 May 2022

    Retrocrit: Sliding into this watery domain did you get wet…?

    The response to Stalker, as to most of Tarkovsky’s (T) work is in a subjectivity.

    What T achieves in Stalker is to create the filmic conditions where it is the viewer who moves, who is on the journey into the Zone. In one sense the viewer is the star of the film. The defining features of the way Stalker has been filmed: the length of its shots and the shot composition, the tracking shots either over the shoulder or composed through the wreckage of the Zone, create spacio-temporal conditions for the audience to have to define and understand what is going on for themselves and world of meaning in which they locate themselves.

    The film is constructed to work dynamically with the viewer. It is the viewer who is the affected. To view is to engage. It is only possible to view Stalker if you are able to attune consciousness to the visual and temporal stimulae expressed in the film.   Stalker is about state of mind: your state of mind. Dream – allegory – hallucination.

    Stalker creates possible worlds with which we have to engage and enter. If we can’t do this, we either leave the movie or the movie will leave us.

    The world of ‘Stalker’ is built on a few simple precepts, like the rules of a simple game. There is a forbidden area called the Zone; in the Zone is a room which if you enter you will be granted what you desire. You need the stalker to enter and to traverse the Zone. The Zone is not constant in form, but changes in response to human presence. Only the stalker knows how to find the room. These elements are rich enough to sustain and enrich a number of different orders of allegorical readings and priorities.

    In ‘Stalker’ the eponymous guide is the Holy Fool. Like one blessed by God whose vision penetrates into and beyond the myriad manifestations that present on the surface of existence. In the Zone, the Holy Fool is our guide to ‘seeing’; but in accepting the Holy Fool as guide we enter unknowingly into a epistemological compact which becomes increasingly difficult for us to accept.  Like the viewers, the Writer and the Scientist are slaves to Reason. The seeing and the utterances of the Holy Fool aren’t grounded in the rationality that defines the life and identity of 21st century citizen. Like John of Patmos (author of the Book of Revelation – the Apocalypse) Holy Fool speaks revelation, vision and intuition, a language that casts reason to the dogs, undermining the foundation of our being in the world. The Holy Fool is mad and dangerous. After initial infatuation with his novelty, the Writer and the Scientists block him off, their aggrieved egos reject him and all he stands for. The mechanics of Marx’ dialectic may be dead; but we are not able to follow the Holy Fool . That is our dilemma: we live in a world without meaning, neither within nor without time. ‘Stalker’ is a mystical statement directed at the deadness of the ideology that sustained the USSR.

    Cuckoo Cuckoo! The eidetic sound of the cuckoo is interspersed throughout T’s soundtrack. The emblematic bird call that mocks man and all his designs, bids him harken to the natural world, which is of course here to be found in the devastation of the ‘Zone’.

    The characteristic natural element of ‘Stalker’ is water. Water is everywhere: seen – heard – experienced. Like life it is never still. It flows falls ripples spreads covers, often disturbed and perturbed by man.   The Zone is world of wetness where boundaries are not mediated by definite form but by a liquid soluble contiguousness. A world where things merge rather than separate. A world mostly covered in a unifying aqueous layering. A world where the viewer gets wet, slips into a primordial wetness. A toxic baptism.

    T’s camera probes beneath the surface of the world. We pass through cosmological miracles of light and dark, snow rain and broken surfaces. As the camera glides through the water a gold fish appears from nowhere, and we notice colours transmitted in the details of submerged objects that are as intense as any Russian icon. A world that is poisoned yet like Russia still reveals traces of an overwhelming aesthetic imperative. A trace of faith in the middle of the dead environment. The journey to the room has no end. The Stalker will not enter the room, he is beyond desire; his need is to approach to guide: nothing more – an act of obeisance to another higher order. The writer seeks renewal, the scientist destruction. Neither finds what they desire; neither as far as we know enters the room.

    The Stalker exhausted returns home lies down as if to die. His wife testifies that he is a good man, a worthwhile man. His daughter, crippled, sits before a table. In front of on the table there are a number of vessels. They start to move of their own accord, sliding across the surface until one drops of its edge. We read into it what we will: chance – telekinetic powers – a final parable.

    “….and he showed me a pure river of water of life as clear as crystal and proceeding out of the throne of God…” (The Revelation of John the Devine)

    As I progressed into Stalker the notion arose that I was being led into a sort of inverted twisted Book of Revelations. A negative vision of Jerusalem cruelly stripped of God and the yearning for the kingdom of heaven. The apocalypse had happened but it was man made: not the creation of the demiurge. All that remains are our desires and they will not save us from ourselves. The film invokes subjectivity in the viewer (for which it was forcefully attacked by Soviet critics) but for me ‘Stalker’ points to the fact that subjectivities are of little use on the journey to understand ourselves.

    Stalker was the last movie T made in the Soviet Union. It is a fateful marker. T left during the last days of the Soviet Empire to explore the psychic detritus of the West. Some think that the filming of Stalker on location in the polluted poisoned water of an abandoned chemical plant in Estonia caused the bronchial cancers that cost him, his wife, Larissa and the actor Anatoly Solonitsyn, their lives. Another school of thought imagines him killed by the KGB as a dangerous cultural renegade.

    adrin neatrour